OPENING NIGHT (1977) : Inside I feel 18 years old

In my previous post I analysed a 4 minutes scene where Myrtle is challenged about her inability to act the role of an older woman, Virginia, or disclose her age. This crucial scene occurs nearly half way through the film. It leads Myrtle to put into words her inner feelings:   I have this dead girl. … she is so open … on top of everything… she reminds me of… 

Cassavetes uses brief scenes, ellipses, quick montage sequences and often extreme close-ups of faces or even part of faces. The action takes place sometimes on stage where Rowlands plays Virginia an older woman, sometimes off stage where she is Myrtle a successful actor. The scenes of rehearsal further complicate the picture and it is difficult at times to distinguish between performance and rehearsal and between Myrtle and Virginia.

Myrtle’s identity crisis is precipitated by the role she has to play, other relationships in her life as an actor, and the death of a young fan.  My interest here is to tease out of this complex psychological net the threads that expose the feeling of “being 18 inside” an expression so often used when discussing ageing. I would like to explore the way Cassavetes uses the dead Nancy to reveal Myrtle’s inner conflict about her ageing.

Although I do not always agree with the few subjective comments that Deforest makes, I will use his scene by scene analysis to locate the scenes relevant to my study. ( My personal comments in bold.

SCENE TWO : In this scene we are introduced to Nancy. She is an adoring fan of Myrtle. She fights her way through the crowds of people asking for autographs to declare her love for the actor. A montage of people shouting and jostling includes close-ups of the faces of the major characters in the film. Nancy’s striking blue coat and hat are picked out and  she finally reaches Myrtle who looks at her with interest. The fan hugs her and  even goes down ( to kiss the ground her idol walks on?) but is helped up. I love you… Myrtle: What is your name and how old are you?. Nancy . I am seventeen. They get separated as Myrtle is marshalled into the car under the rain. Nancy follows sending hand kisses and saying I love you, I love you. In a desperate gesture Nancy reaches with an outstretched hand to touch Myrtle but the car window is in the way and she cannot reach her. Myrtle asks for the window to be lowered: Come and see me tomorrow …there is something wrong with that kid. Seconds later Nancy is killed by a passing car. Night shots with speeding cars under the rain and a body lying on the floor follow. The body is turned over and we see her dead face. Myrtle does not, as her car did not stop. In a film where Myrtle/Virginia shows no sympathy for anybody else but herself, this sequence shows her interested, concerned, touched by the young fan.

SCENE SIX: After a rehearsal is interrupted because Myrtle cannot cope with the role and expresses the view  that the play gives no hope, she experiences her first vision of the dead Nancy. In her dressing room she looks at herself in the mirror and her face merges into another, Nancy’s. Close ups of Myrtle’s face and Nancy’s show them smiling and at peace. Their two palms press together  in a perfect fit. Myrtle is in the process of identifying with the dead Nancy. The vision is interrupted by a knock on the door and a dialogue where Myrtle distances herself from the older Sarah whose play she is acting in. 

SCENE EIGHT: Myrtle intrudes into the family setting of  Nancy’s wake and is not welcomed there as she is perceived as the cause of the young woman’s death.  If you had children you would not have come here. It can be argued that the fact that Myrtle is prevented from grieving for the death of Nancy reinforces her identification with her and her delusions.

SCENE THIRTEEN : Sarah’s challenge about coming to terms with voicing one’s age has been analysed in the previous post. I have this dead girl. She is so open. She is really on top of everything emotionally, she reminds me of …  As we have seen in the earlier post Myrtle is forced to face her age by a successful older woman.  

SCENE FOURTEEN: In her apartment  Myrtle expresses to Manny, the director, her alienation from the role of Virginia and rants about feeling nothing for her and any way nobody is interested in old women. She goes into the bathroom. She washes her face and we see her blond flowing hair.  The next sequence is a most unusual and effective shot/counter shot one that illustrates Myrtle’s inner thoughts through a conversation between her and the imagined Nancy.  Close-up of her face looking up and smiling serenely. Pan across the screen and up to the righthand corner and close-up of Nancy and her flowing hair.  Piano music. I like the music, it is nice, soothing… cut to Myrtle slowly shutting her eyes  I used to play it on  my stereo . Pan across to Nancy in profile looking away to the right… waiting for the time to pass… turns head so we see only her hair  waiting for the night to come…the movie won’t start till six …I dreamed with music … go to the movies … boys. Pan to Myrtle:  the men, older men, and boys… always picked me up. Myrtle opens her eyes I don’t want to hear about your sex life.  Knock at the door.  Manny enters and for a second we see Nancy standing up by the wash basin and Myrtle sitting on the side of the bath.   This beautiful scene show us Myrtle reminiscing about her youth and taking delight in it. Up to a point. She does not want to go as far as remembering her sexual experiences.  When Manny enters the bathroom she expresses anxiety about the future.

SCENE SIXTEEN: After Myrtle changes all the lines of Sarah’s play in a performance and addresses the audience directly, all the people involved in the production discuss the situation. It is Sarah who asks:  Is it the girl who was killed? Have you seen her? Myrtle:  OK, I have seen her but not like you think.  I made her up she is mine she is my fantasy. I wanted to see how it would feel like to be… Sarah: to be young again.  Was she on stage again tonight?  Myrtle: No  look,  would I let anybody go on stage for me?  do you think I am crazy? I am in control I can make her appear or disappear at will.

SCENE SEVENTEEN: At the spiritualist. Myrtle explains that Nancy only exists in her mind. That the play is about the gradual lessening of her power as a woman as she matures, that at some time in life youth dies and the second woman takes over and Nancy is the first woman. … that she created Nancy because there were some scenes in the play that she could not cope with.  Myrtle insists that she is in control. I believe that Nancy is the first woman in my own life – it is like when you were a child and had an imaginary friend  – you know –  someone that you made up. She did not exist.  Sarah: A lot of people think that the young person in us is important. This scene and the previous one show that Myrtle is slowly articulating a change in her feelings towards the intrusion of her young self into her present.

SCENE EIGHTEEN :  Myrtle enters her apartment, walks around it. She addresses an absent Nancy: it is not your fault, you are only 18… It is not my fault either. I am an actress I have to… she goes to pour out a drink but Nancy grabs her from behind and a violent body fight ensues where Nancy is thrown to the floor and a tragic expression is glimpsed on her face. Myrtle looks around and see only her coat on the floor.  Distressed Myrtle goes to Sarah’s room. Sarah is in bed. Myrtle bangs her head violently against the door frames as if pushed and punched by an invisible hand but says to an alarmed Sarah:    Don’t worry I am doing this to my self. In the bathroom we see her bloodied face and eye. She asks is it all right with you  if I spent the night here?   The fear of this violent vision disturbs Myrtle and she seeks help from the older woman even though she had declared that they would never be friends.

SCENE TWENTY TWO : After the rehearsal of an upsetting scene a desperate Myrtle asks Sarah to take her to her spiritualist friend. In the spiritualist’s room Nancy makes an aggressive entrance locking the door behind her. Her hands on her waist she accuses:   You want to kill me, I devoted my life to you, to movies, to music, to the theatre. I’m 17-years-old. I like sex. I like to turn people on. And that’s what the theatre is. It’s sex… Myrtle : If you hurt me, I won’t be able to act. She attacks Nancy, throws her on the floor and finishes her off by throwing bottles at her. Is she dead? Is she dead?  This is the second time the young woman is associated with the sexual power of youth. This is the second time that older Myrtle faces the fact that her sexual power is diminishing.

Having killed her young self Myrtle visits Maurice but her advances are rejected. Although drunk she manages to turn up at the  New York Opening Night of Second  Wife. She only survives the earlier scenes thanks to the intelligent support of her fellow actors who adapt their roles. But she really comes back to life and her funny self in the last scene. Previously  in a rehearsal Marty leaves Virginia. Here, in a tour de force Myrtle transforms this last sad scene to a comic even farcical one where she taunts and teases Marty. In her brilliant red dress a bottle in one hand a cigarette in the other she asks What are we fighting about, Marty? He also improvises and responds in kind: We are absolutely different people than we were…   I am not me, I used to be me. I am getting older what are we going to do about it?  It is impossible in this last scene not to merge Virginia/Marty, Myrtle/Maurice and Gena Rowlands/ John Cassavetes into one ageing couple with a sense of humour. This wonderful funny scene with kernels of truth, shades of cruelty, despair and hope, love and fun ends the play. It has taken place in front of the photograph of a very old woman. Throughout the film Manny accused Myrtle of not being funny anymore. The play has no hope, it is a serious play. By injecting fun in this play about age, Myrtle has accepted her own ageing and asserts her sense of enduring sense of humour.  

I have chosen to explore this aspect of Opening Night in the hope of understanding the meaning of the sentence “inside I feel 18”.  I am no nearer to grasp what people  mean. At the age of 80 I do not feel that I have access to the selves I have been. I cannot dissociate the ‘inside’ from the ‘outside’.  I have enough to do with my present multiple selves. Of course they incorporate memories and past experiences. I know that these memories are biased by strong emotions, pain, first time events, but also self-delusion.  Of course my identity has been forged by past experiences and has many aspects depending on the social context I find myself in. I may remember how I felt at  specific moments of my past but as Myrtle says, the person I was would only be a fantasy, a fiction, a vision, an imaginary self that I make up. As in the film I think that the intrusion of a fabricated fictional past self  into the present can be destructive and can prevent growth.

Opening Night is a film dense with ideas. Some are articulated in a very strong script, some are only expressed visually. I could have looked at how the different relationships between Myrtle and men and women develop during her identity crisis, at the different ways women and men age, at Myrtle’s drinking problem, at the problem of age and the performing arts. Cassavetes by using a 47 years actor explores the general fear of ageing in a film where women of all ages have a role.


















About rinaross

Born in 1935. MA in Film and Television Studies at the University of Westminster 1998. Studying the representation of older women in film since then.
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